True of false? The basis of China’s global economic competitiveness is cheap labor? False. It’s cheap factory land.
No doubt, until a few years ago, China’s low labor costs were a vital part of its economic growth story. That is no longer the case. Labor costs have risen sharply in the last five years. There are now many countries with a decided labor cost advantage over China. And yet China remains the “factory of the world”. For one thing, its workers have higher productivity than those earning lower wages in countries like Vietnam, India or Indonesia.
But, there is a more fundamental, and most often overlooked, reason for China’s global economic competitiveness. Factories, and other productive assets like mines or logistics centers, are built on land that is either free of close to it. The result is that in China land costs usually represent an inconsequential component of overall manufacturing and operating costs. This, in turn, gives China an inbuilt edge and, when added to the productivity of its workers, an insurmountable cost advantage over the rest of the world.
There is no good international data on the percentage of a company’s fixed costs that come from purchase or rental of land. But, it is certainly the case that in China, this percentage will be far lower than in any developed – and many developing – countries. This isn’t because land is cheap in China. It isn’t. The market price, in most areas, is often on par with land costs in the US. But, good businesses in China don’t pay market price. Often they pay nothing at all.
This has two useful aspects for the favored Chinese business. First, it means the cost of expanding operations is limited primarily to the cost of new capital equipment and factory construction. Second, the business given a plot of land is thus endowed with a valuable asset it can use as collateral to secure more funding from banks. Even better, if the business runs into trouble or later goes bust, the owner will be able to sell the land at market price and pocket a huge personal gain.
It can’t be overstated just how important this is to a business owner’s calculation of risk, and so the success of Chinese entrepreneurial companies. Owners know that if all goes bad, they still hold land acquired for little or nothing for that is worth millions of dollars.
All land in China belongs to the Chinese government. Every year, a fraction of it is released on a long-term lease (usually forty years or longer) for development into commercial or residential land. While there is no official central policy to make land available at low prices to successful businesses, in practice, this is the way the system works. Land is sold at deeply-discounted prices, or given outright, to businesses that are seeking to expand, often by building a new factory or office building.
Land in China, it goes without saying, is in very high demand. It’s a crowded country, and only 15% of the land is flat or fertile enough to be suitable for cultivation. This “good land” is also where most new factories get built.
There isn’t enough new land released every year to meet the enormous demand. This is true both for residential land, a key reason why housing prices are so high, and commercial land. For most businessmen, it’s impossible to get new land, at any price. A privileged group, however, not only gets land to expand, but gets it at artificially low prices. In China, land prices are elastic. Different levels of government have ways to transfer land to companies at prices equal to 5%-15% of its current market value.
Officially, the land allocation system in China is meant to work in a more market-oriented way, with new land for development being auctioned publicly, and selling prices controlled and verified by higher levels of government. In other words, the system is meant to discourage, if not prohibit, land being given to insiders at low prices. In practice, these rules are often more observed in the breach. Local governments have ways to control the outcome of land auctions and so guarantee that favored businesses get the land they want at attractive prices.
These below-market sales deprive the local government of revenue it might otherwise earn from a land deal done at closer to market prices. But, there is some economic logic at work. The sweetest of sweetheart land deals are generally offered to successful companies whose growth is being stifled by insufficient factory space. The new land, and the new factories that will be built there, will increase local employment and, down the road, tax revenues.
Note, the deeply-discounted land prices are available mainly to companies that are already successful, and straining at the leash to maintain growth and profits. Both private and state-owned companies are eligible. It’s a rare example of even-handed treatment by officials of state-owned and private companies.
Is corruption also a factor? Are cheap land deals really not all that cheap when various under-the-table payments are factored in? My personal experience, though limited, suggests such payoffs, if they happen, are not compulsory.
I’ve played a walk-on part in several below-market land deals. My role is to meet with local officials, usually the mayor or party secretary, to urge them to provide my client with the land needed for expansion. All local government officials in China are also motivated by, and rewarded for, having local companies go public. I stick to that point in my discussions with the local officials – my client needs land to grow and so reach the scale where the business can IPO.
In each case, the deal has gone forward, and clients have gotten the land they were seeking, at a price 5-15% of its then-market value. My client wins the trifecta: the business grows larger, unit costs remain low because of scale economies and the cheap land, and the balance sheet is strengthened by a valuable asset purchased on the cheap.
In all respects, this system of commercial land acquisition is unique to China. It is also a key component in the country’s economic policy, though it never has been proclaimed as such. The government at all levels is keen to keep GDP growing smartly. This process of rewarding good companies with cheap land for growth plays a key part in this, everywhere across China. China’s government (at national, provincial and local levels) is not hurting for cash, unlike for example America’s. Tax revenues are growing by upwards of 30% a year. So, maximizing the value of land released for development is not a fiscal priority.
Who loses? There are likely incidences where peasants are thrown off land with little or no compensation to make way for new commercial district. But, that way of doing things is becoming less common in China.
Mainly, of course, the losers are the international competitors of Chinese companies getting cheap land to expand. It’s hard enough to stay in business these days when facing competition from China. It verges on hopeless when the Chinese companies can build output and lower unit prices because of land they get for free or close to it.